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Mutant gene is key to first genetically engineered trees

Scientists reported Tuesday that they had developed the world's first genetically engineered trees: poplars designed to be grown on plantations and burned for energy production. In the procedure, a mutant gene from salmonella bacteria was introduced into the trees, making them resistant to a widely used weedkiller.

Growing poplars on plantations has been difficult because the young trees can be crowded out and killed by weeds. Weedkillers often kill or damage the poplars, said Bruce E. Haissig of the U.S. Forest Service laboratory in Rhinelander, Wis.

Ability to withstand herbicides would lower the cost of producing the trees, which grow rapidly and could be burned to provide energy or converted into ethanol to run automobiles, he said.

The trees will survive anywhere in the United States. And a demonstration project has shown that they can be grown in India as a potential source of energy for the Third World, Haissig said.

The research has been partly supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, he said. Scientists in Minnesota are working on the feasibility of the energy plantations.